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Unlogged Forests are the Healthiest Forests

Photo by Michael Scheltgen | CC BY 2.0

Politicians in the West have increasingly been repeating scientifically-discredited timber industry propaganda that logging national forests is somehow beneficial for the health of our publicly-owned forests, wildlife, and fisheries.

What they regularly avoid mentioning is that some of the best wildlife habitat in the West is in unlogged areas like the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana and Yellowstone National Park. Or that the cleanest water and some of the best fishing — particularly for native species — is in streams that flow through unlogged national forests.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem is unique.  These wildlands support almost all the fish and wildlife species that were present when Lewis and Clark passed through more than two centuries ago. These same public lands are what sustain the region’s long and generous hunting seasons, provide angling for native trout, and allow unparalleled opportunities for personal solitude from our ever more hectic society.  Public lands are also responsible for the West’s multi-billion dollar outdoor industry, attracting visitors by the tens of millions every year.

This national treasure is anchored by the roadless areas of the Northern Rockies. Numerous scientific studies have found unlogged roadless areas provide the best habitat for elk, the best water quality, and the most secure habitat for threatened species including grizzly bear, bull trout, and lynx.  In short they are the nation’s healthiest forests.

Surely the timber industry and its political mouthpieces know that the Rocky Mountains aren’t the best place for tree farming since the fastest-growing industrial forests are located in the moist southern states. In contrast, the Rockies’ growing season is short and dry, particularly at high elevations where the soils are often thin and fragile. That’s why most logging on national forests in the West wind up losing money and being subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

The timber industry and its politicians also want the public to believe more logging will stop large wildfires.  But in 2016, in the most expansive analysis of the issue so far, scientists found that forests with the fewest environmental protections and the most logging had the highest — not the lowest — levels of fire intensity. Why?  Because logging removes relatively non-combustible tree trunks but leaves behind flammable “slash debris” consisting of kindling-like branches and treetops.

In 2015 more than 260 scientists wrote to Congress opposing legislation that would weaken environmental laws and increase logging on national forests under the guise of curbing wildfires, noting that snag forests with their dead trees are “quite simply some of the best wildlife habitat in forests.”

Another comprehensive study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, thoroughly debunked the myth that beetle-killed trees lead to more intense fires.  A more recent study found that forests with high levels of dead snags actually burn less intensely because pine needles and small twigs fall to the ground and quickly decay after trees die.

If politicians were really interested in forest ecosystem health, they should be advocating for the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, S.936 in the Senate and H.R.2135 in the House of Representatives.

This citizen-developed and science-based plan is inspired by conservation biology, bestowing the protection our region richly deserves and upon which our fish, wildlife and regional economy depend. Rather than further fragmenting and isolating our wildlife habitat, it would protect our last existing roadless areas by designating them as wilderness areas and work to reconnect them while employing thousands of people with good restoration jobs in the process.

Subsidizing more logging with millions of taxpayer dollars won’t make our forests healthier, keep water clean, or benefit the West’s fisheries and wildlife.  What it will result in is more corporate welfare, more weed-infested, fire-prone forests, more sediment-filled streams, and less fish and wildlife.  Contrary to their claims, the plans of the timber industry and its political puppets will only do two things; enrich private corporations with public resources and leave the rest of us with stump-filled and truly unhealthy forests.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.  He taught environmental economics at the University of Utah for six years.

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Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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